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Is Genetically Modified Food Safe? Benefits and Risk of Food and Livestock Modification

written by: Jennifer Gonzalez •edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 6/30/2011

Genetic engineering of livestock and produce is a practice that is in full swing. Since modifiers are not currently required to place labels on their products, many are wondering what genetic engineering is exactly, and if the practice is safe and without long-term effects.

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    Genetically Engineering

    tomato Genetically engineering or genetically modifying livestock and produce is the act of modifying and changing some of the genes and DNA that are found naturally in the plants and animals. Sometimes, this means taking a trait out of DNA, while other times it means adding a different trait or form of DNA into the plant or animal. This is done for the sole purpose of achieving a specific outcome in the product. While scientists have come a long way with this technology, the act of genetic engineering livestock and produce is still somewhat new. There has not been an extensive amount of research done on the long-term effects or consequences of this process, or on how genetic engineering affects a plant, animal, or even the person that consumes the product later on down the road. Because of this, some consumers feel uneasy about buying and eating food that is no longer in its natural state.

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    Reasons for Modifying

    Livestock

    There are many reasons why the choice is made to genetically alter different livestock. A major reason this decision is made is for an increase in profit for the farmer, while giving the same amount of product. For example, a single cow can become modified to produce the amount of milk that it would take two cows to produce at one time. Because of this, the farmer that is selling the product from that one genetically altered cow is actually being paid for the price of two cows, all for the amount of product that the one cow has produced. Livestock can also be altered to change the flavor, make it leaner, make more of product and to make the product last longer. On the medical front, some animals are being altered to be able to provide human anti-bodies that can provide a sick person with medication that will fight off infection. Animals such as pigs are also being genetically modified to be able to provide humans with organ transplants. These organ transplants will make it easier for a sick person to find a transplant match that has a higher chance of a successful transplant. This is because these pig organs have a high success rate and less of a chance for organ transplant rejection. Genetic engineering is not just for the benefit of humans; in some cases, animals are being modified to become less prone to disease and illness, which will make them more effective and comfortable during their lives on the farms.

    Produce

    Produce is genetically altered for many of the same reasons that people have chosen to genetically alter their livestock. You can alter different types of produce for many different things; however, with a society that is growing larger every day, many are inclined to increase to size of the product. This is good news for many households that are struggling to get by. Other reasons for altering produce are to make it more nutritious, allow the plant to become resistant to drought conditions and plant illnesses by requiring less water and care, create a plant with built-in pesticides which will result in less product loss and develop faster growing plants that supply more produce than regular unaltered varieties. Just as it was described with livestock, some plants are also altered for medicinal purposes. Some genetically altered plants can be used in the creation of vaccines, antibiotics and other forms of medications.

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    Risks with Modification

    While there are many benefits to genetically modifying food, there are also risks involved. One of the main concerns that come with ingesting genetically modified foods is an increase in allergic reactions in individuals that have known food allergies. For example, if someone eats a piece of meat or produce that has been altered with materials from another type of food that the individual is allergic to, the person may have an allergic reaction to the food that they never had a problem eating in the past. This could have a serious and potentially life-threatening outcome for some with severe food allergies, especially to items such as peanuts if they unknowingly consume food that has been altered with that substance.

    Other risks include:

    • A plant that has been modified to resist pests that normally plague that plant may end up becoming weak to other forms of pests.
    • Plants and animals that have been altered can have unforeseen genetic changes that may become harmful.
    • Modified organisms may breed with unmodified organisms, which can cause the original organism to become extinct.

    While genetically modified food is generally considered safe, no real research has yet been conducted. Currently there is no real way to know if you are purchasing or eating modified foods as there is no requirement for labeling at this time.

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    References

    Genetically Engineered Foods; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002432.htm

    Regulation of Genetically Engineered Animals; http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048106.htm

    Genetically Engineered Foods (GMO'S); http://www.mcvitamins.com/genetically_engineered_foods.htm

    Image: Tomatoes by Joost J. Bakker under CC BY 2.0






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